How to survive and thrive as a screenwriter

How to survive and thrive as a screenwriter in Hollywood – Mark Sanderson

Mark Sanderson – aka Scriptcat – is a veteran of the screenwriting world, with no fewer than 15 produced movies under his belt to date. So, he knows a thing or two about the art of script writing. In fact, he’s written a book on how to survive and thrive as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

In a 4 part series of fascinating interviews, Mark provides some invaluable insights on how he has managed to chisel out a career in writing for the screen over many years. 

From making movies as a kid, to waiting tables, and then finally getting a break, Mark talks us through what it takes to make it as a writer. It can occasionally be glamorous but, as we discover, it’s not for the faint of heart…

The rest of the series is coming soon!

FF: Could you give us an overview of who you are, your journey as a scriptwriter, and what you’ve done?

MS: I’m a working screenwriter based in Los Angeles, just outside of Hollywood. When I was 11 years old, my best friend received a movie camera from his grandfather, and we decided to start making films. That was when the spark happened and learning by doing and making films. We tried to emulate the filmmakers that we loved. We made genre films like science fiction, action, and we played secret agents too.

We didn’t make films that starred kids, we played the parts as if we were adults, you know, which I think was brilliant, because looking back now…we took ourselves so seriously and even created a movie studio. We were making two or three movies a year (short films), and we had our regular stable of actors. 

I was blessed to grow up in the city where Hollywood was shooting movies all the time, and TV shows that you would see the next week on television, some of the top shows. So it wasn’t such a weird, as I say, dream, as if I lived somewhere else in the middle of the country saying, ‘Well, this is a dream I’ll never achieve!’ It was all around us. My friend’s father was in the film business at the time, but my family was not in the business at all. 

And so growing up around that and just making films lead me to eventually transitioning into making longer films in high school, and then having bigger aspirations… like going to college… I went to UCLA film school, and thought I would graduate with, as they say, the ‘three picture deal’. 

I'll Remember April (2020)
I’ll Remember April (2000), written by Mark Sanderson. [Regent Entertainment]
You know, they hand over your diploma and then your three-picture deal. Great, so film school means I’m in! It’s a joke of course. Then you realise, I have to start all over again from the bottom. So, after graduating from film school I started busting my ass as we all did, writing specs and trying to sell them, and taking meetings and trying to do all of that. In fact, I came across a letter recently, (because I keep everything), and it was a rejection letter from a company for me to be a runner, which is like a production assistant. It said, “We’ve gone through applicants and we’re so sorry to inform you that we went with another applicant… (this was a year out of film school). I look back at that letter now… and I’m glad I saved it. You know, because I’ve now had 15 movies produced and it’s been a long journey. 

So, after film school it took about six years before I had my first professional job. It wasn’t for lack of trying and ‘doing’… it’s just that it’s a difficult business to reach any level of continued success. So, I continued to build contacts and connections, and a company had optioned a spec script of mine that almost won the Nicholl Fellowship, which is a prestigious contest through the Academy Of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences here in Hollywood. It was a top 20 script, but it didn’t win the top eight for the Fellowship, but they called me and said, ‘You know, you’ve got something here. I hope you wouldn’t apply next year because it would find its home and be produced’. 

It certainly did. A new company optioned my script for a year and a half and we developed it, and we had many false starts. It happens that way sometimes. You know, financing falls through and then, finally, they executed the option and made the movie. That solidified my relationship with them, and they were moving into starting their production slate of making films. 

So they started hiring me as an assignment writer, which many writers don’t understand; it’s the bread and butter of writing, as I say, for the working writer, is assignment work. You know, most of the movies that you see, rarely are they from a spec screenplay that sold. I think 34 specs sold last year (2019) in Hollywood.

So if you think about the 50,000 scripts bouncing around every year… the spec script is basically your calling card. You may sell one in your career, some people sell more, but it’s assignment work that is the regular work for a Hollywood screenwriter. 

You want to, in my opinion, sit down and write movies and get paid for it. That was always my dream. I didn’t want to be a waiter in a restaurant… and I waited tables for ten years, and I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, and other odd jobs.

So that started my relationship with that new production company. Luckily, one job turned into the next, and the next, and after more produced films I started expanding my reach with other producers and that’s basically how it’s worked for me. 

Classic Screenwriter's Typewriter

It has not been easy. You have to realise, it’s a long haul and there’s this romanticised mystical ideal of a screenwriter that doesn’t exist. I always want to bring through that truth of my experience. Maybe somebody else sells their first spec and they become a multi- millionaire, but if you’re chasing riches and fame and glory, as all artists know, Hollywood’s not the place to do it. You have to come from a different place regarding your point of view.

What is ‘making it’? I always thought making it was selling a script; now 15 produced movies later, I think making it is staying in the game, over the long haul, because I read somewhere recently that the life expectancy of a writer in Hollywood is 10 years.

FF: You’ve managed over 20 assignments and 15 produced films, so why is it that you think a screenwriting career is typically short, and why do you think you’ve managed to buck the trend?

MS: I think it’s traditionally short because it’s just difficult to get any script produced. Also there are dry periods in a career but also busy periods. In Los Angeles so many people want to do the same thing. It’s a job. It’s a career and it’s how you pay your bills (if you get paid again and again). It has the same responsibilities as any job has. Right? You have schedules, you have deadlines, you have to show up and work. You know… the top screenwriters…how many people get to that echelon?

And are you going to be upset if you don’t reach that level? Okay, like I’ve said in some interviews, I’ve had friends I used to work with in the restaurant, they were like, ‘Yeah, I won’t be happy unless I’m a movie star, you know?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re searching for something to fill your void’, rather than saying, ‘God, I’m able to get up in the morning and get paid to do what I love for living!’ 

You know, an artistic life is a rough one, trying to make money from your artistic talents. Tenacity is needed to stay in the game. You’re the writer they can’t shake and who will not quit.

You know, many people don’t get to do that. My parents didn’t. They had jobs and, as I say in my book, they were artistic people who never were able to do it for a living, but they kept it as a hobby. I was surrounded by their love and support, and they always told me: go for your dreams. But as I was saying, certain jobs, there’s not like a million people trying to do that job. When you’re out here, and in La La Land, everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a screenwriter… I want to be in film… I want to be a director…’ If that’s truly what you want, that’s great, but then they find out how difficult it is to achieve and many change their minds. 

I find many writers, when I read their material, I’m like, ‘Great, you’re learning and that’s fantastic.’ We have to get through those bad scripts to get to the other side. And some never get to the other side. And then, others are not really passionate about it. It’s not what they have to do. 

I think I’ve been able to stay in the game because it’s been a burning dream since was 11, and this is what I have to do because it’s my passion and has been my focus. In addition, I never put an expiration date on my screenwriting dreams and never gave up. I’ve been able to adapt and keep learning and creating, networking, and putting writing at the forefront of my life. 

FF: It’s really interesting to hear from somebody who has the discipline and application to go with the talent of writing. To stick at something for 20 years. It’s impressive. 

MS: Yeah, like I say, it hasn’t been easy. It’s a roller coaster, ups and downs and there’s years where you have, like, so much work you don’t even know what to do. And they’re calling you and saying, ‘I’ve got three movies: pick one.’ You’re thinking, ‘Who does that?’ 

I guess I’ve been able to get to that relationship level where yeah, sure, of course, I have to knock on doors, people I don’t know, but the ones in my circle I’ve built a reputation where they go, ‘Oh, yeah, you did this movie’. 

Many times, I do find people, especially on social media, tend to want to attack what you’ve done in your career. The movies that have had produced. Because you only do this and they’re expecting you to do something even on a bigger level. They don’t realise from never having been on the journey just how difficult it is to get any film produced on any level. You know what I mean? It’s like, we all achieve a level that we can at this point, not that we don’t aspire for something bigger, or that we’re not doing something to work toward that goal. But I wanted to work and being a working writer, like I said, to wake up in the morning and that’s all I do. Not go back to that job that I despised.

FF: What do you feel is the most important quality that a person requires in order to make a living from scriptwriting? 

MS: Tenacity. And, like I say, I never put an expiration date on my filmmaking dreams, but because of that, I have suffered in some of my relationships. People who, you know, put a line in the sand and said, ‘Well, your career is not happening at this point. How long are you going to keep doing this?’ Many look at writers like that and say, ‘Ah, you’re just blowing smoke because everyone wants to be a writer, you know, everybody wants to be a director… How do you think you’re going to be the one that does it?’ So you go through that many times as well on the journey.  

I’ve had an extremely supportive family. That’s been the number one thing. Some people do not. You know, an artistic life is a rough one, trying to make money from your artistic talents. And I don’t say make money in a bad way, like, pay your bills and put food on the table, rather than it being a hobby. And for some people, that’s fine. I’ve met people who say, ‘I just write scripts for the fun of it!’ So that’s fantastic, you know? Tenacity is needed to stay in the game. You’re the writer they can’t shake and who will not quit.

You also have to have a filter, which is an honesty filter, where you can look in the mirror and go, ‘Am I going to give it my all still? My break could be just around the corner. But am I going to stop now?’ And be really honest. You’ve written 10 scripts and they’ve all been rejected. But you have to look inside your soul and say maybe screenwriting is not for me. And that’s okay. Because I would tell someone, ‘I’d rather have you realise that sooner than later, because you have the rest of your time to focus on something else instead of trying to force it, and it’s okay.’ 

It may not be the medium for you, and I see many people try to stretch out from it. So maybe writing a novel is the best thing for you. Maybe you’re a novel writer, not a screenwriter, but screenwriting has this romanticised… ‘Oh, it’s exciting and we’re at premieres and, you know, drinking Prosecco!’ And, yeah, that happens sometimes. But it’s few and far between, you know… The high points of that make up for a lot of the crap that we go through on the journey. But you have to love the craft. Bottom line. Yeah, as I say, ‘You’re the one up at two o’clock in the morning trying to figure out the puzzle pieces.’ And maybe it’s the worst thing ever, but you’re like, ‘I’d rather do this than anything else in the world. Please may have some more!’

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